Lily’s parents brought us to the airport at 3:50 a.m, as they are super helpful in a way that English parents are not. We boarded on time, but a lighting issue on the runway meant our plane to Cali had to wait for the sun to come up before taking off.
An hour later than planned we were in the sky over Bogotá as the sun rose on the horizon. I spent my time between there and Cali trying to trick my mind into thinking the fermented smell of vomit from one of the other passengers was actually that of fresh parmesan. You can try that for yourself – it works as long as you have the imagination for it.
Santiago de Cali (or Cali, for short) is the L.A. of Colombia. It’s sun bleached, their second largest city, and famous for three things; it’s the original home of salsa in Colombia, so it has a lively nightlife; it used to be the base of some pretty impressive drug kingpins called the Cali Cartel; and it also has the heart of Colombia’s indie-film industry, “Caliwood”. In trendier times, while the rest of the country was turning to foreign rock, Cali stuck with Salsa. It was absolutely the place to party.
Today, horny gringos still come to Cali to dance, snort cocaine and perv at beautiful women. I’ve been told this pilgrimage is misplaced, for Cartagena is the home of Colombian beauty pageants, Medellin is the home of the Colombian breast implant and Cali is far less cool than it used to be, having lost its culture to a certain superficiality.
Cali’s Monument to Business Solidarity, in honour of civility and collaboration in business, which looks – appropriately – like slaves being forced to pull a boulder up a hill.
From the airport we took a minibus to Cali’s main bus terminal. As we passed Cali’s preening, ostentatious residents I distracted myself with the sight of the Andes looming over the city and the teams of amateur cyclists we passed, kitted out as if for the Tour de France, with motorbikes trailing in support.
At the terminal we switched into a van that snaked up into the green mountains dotted with outcrops of red bricked, tin roofed, hillside shacks. As we climbed up into the clouds we caught the odd glimpse of Cali in the valley below, with all of its tasteless, sterile and self aggrandising architecture (seriously, it’s just like L.A.) now dwarfed by the phenomenal geological immensity surrounding it.
Despite the odd amusement – like roadside stalls offering goat milk straight from the teat – the romance of winding up into the Andes quickly wore off as our driver-cum-grand prix racer turned our bus into a centrifuge on the steep 180° turns. He tailgated traffic, overtook on blind corners and generally terrified me. After a while we both felt sick. This was just the first of many, many dizzying drives we’d take on this trip.
The photos will get a lot better. This is all I could get from the minibus.
I took my eyes off the speedometer and gazed lovingly out of the window. This is nature with a capital N, it doesn’t mess around. Everything about it is formidable – so dense, lush and resplendent it’s amazing that guerrillas were able to fight in it at all. And were it not for the country’s dangerous reputation, this could be the most popular eco-destination on the planet.
Talking of which, Colombia’s tourism industry reminds me of a retired soldier who makes his living by selling exotic fruits in a freshly repainted concrete shelter that was recently used to torture insurgents. The vistas, ecosystems and playful traditions here are both vibrant and unique, but all is set in a country whose history lies in brutal colonialism, slavery, prolonged civil war and sociopathic drug lords.
Colombia is a stunning reminder that good comes from bad. The people of Colombia love to dance, they talk to strangers as friends, their music is lively and joyful, they are immensely proud of where they live and they consistently rank near the top of the happiness index. On the other hand, they believe violence is in their blood and are pessimistic over what the future holds.
Perhaps that, more than facts or figures, is why Lily and I were being so careful while planning our trip to El Pacifico. Wondering what lay ahead, I drifted off to sleep.